“From Crisis in Perpetuity to Democratic Resilience”
Wednesday, 6 October 2021, Schlosstheater Neues Palais, Potsdam, hybrid
How we learn to better deal with an era of seemingly “perpetual crises”, i.e. how we achieve “democratic resilience”, and what responsibilities and current challenges the media have in this situation, was the topic of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium 2021.
Organised in a hybrid format, it began at 14.00 (CET) with three parallel Strategic Roundtable discussions on the digital platform Zoom. Participants were introduced by Benjamin H. Bratton, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of California, USA, who spoke on “The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World”.
In his speech, he addressed the connection between the covid pandemic and the biological reality of society. The way in which post-pandemic politics complicates the deeply rooted cultures of individualism and subjectivism that are now at the heart of the notion of the common good, Bratton said, formally invites vocal reactions and resistance. This resistance is persistent because certain habits and impulses are firmly embedded in the core of Western social thought. That’s why the resistance comes not only from overtly populist political cultures, “but also, unfortunately, from philosophers where people have looked for guidance on what the interrelationships between biology, politics and the body were and should be.” Bratton advises post-pandemic politics to reject such misconceptions, ” even if the prospective demands for a positive biopolitics are not without controversy, legitimate and otherwise.” The revenge of the real, he said, arises ” in the ethical challenges posed by the realization that the virus is indifferent to the moral projections we might make upon it.” (You can find the whole speech here.
The ‘negative’ biopolitical critique is one with which every university student is all too aware. It is based on the axiom that all forms of society-scale sensing, modeling, and governance are, in essence, forms of pernicious “surveillance” and so should be resisted on those terms.
This was followed by three one-hour Strategic Roundtables running in parallel. The participants had already chosen in advance which roundtable they would like to attend.
Strategic Roundtable I: “New beginnings: Leadership in (post-)covid times”.
Moderation: Annalisa Piras, journalist, filmmaker and Executive Director of the Wake Up Foundation
Input: Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of Law and Politics of the European Union, HEC Paris, France
Strategic Roundtable I focused on the quality of political leadership in Europe in the face of the pandemic, which is proving to be a stress test for governments and societies worldwide. And will not be the last crisis, but is probably only a foretaste of the effects of climate change. The participants discussed how crisis-proof our democracies are, what lessons we should learn from this, what reforms are needed to identify emerging threats in time in the future and how we can maintain cohesion and acceptance of societies in a state of emergency and prevent concrete problems like a pandemic, migration or climate change from becoming crises of democracy in the end.
A sentence by the Indian writer Arundhati Roy was quoted, according to which pandemics in history are always a moment of renewal and change and a break between the old and the new. So the question is whether we should see the COVID-19 pandemic as a portal, a gateway to the future. What did we see during the pandemic, what was and is wrong, what should be a thing of the past?
A major problem of (political) leadership almost everywhere in the world was the lack of speed in responding to the pandemic and the problems of adapting to these constantly new challenges that the virus brought to leaders.
The pandemic made it clear that there was and is a dramatic gap between the decisions of political leaders, the science and the way the science was communicated to people.
For a new kind of leadership, the important lesson follows that new leaders must be much more competent and better prepared for crises, that they must not only understand science but also be able to communicate it.
The media, it is clear, must play a much greater role in supporting this task. After all, most of the problems, especially around the wearing or not wearing of masks and vaccination, have been a direct result of the media’s inability to communicate facts clearly and support science in these troubling times. In short, new leaders need to better understand and communicate science, and the media has a big role to play in this.
The assumption by some political leaders that solutions to the pandemic would lie at the national level only magnified the disaster. The result was many national, disjointed, ineffective initiatives. One positive aspect of this was that it gave many citizens a better understanding and awareness of the need for transnational action and the benefits of European cooperation in crises. Thus, the pandemic has taught that cross-border cooperation can work and that cooperation in crisis situations like this is the right way to go.
Therefore, when it comes to vital goods, which includes vaccines, but also energy, for example, we should go back to the idea of public goods, the procurement of which can be organised and achieved through joint action by different nations.
In this context, media play a key role in explaining and communicating upheavals and changes competently and credibly. Functioning journalism is more important than ever for this, but it must also be paid for. Therefore, the question arose whether information should not be regarded not as a commodity but as a public good that should be freely accessible, which, however, contradicts the traditional business models of media companies, which are functioning less and less well anyway.
It was suggested that the role of the state should be brought back to the centre of the debate when it comes to financing journalism, as the upcoming changes are so complex that we need qualified information more than ever.
Strategic Roundtable II: “Fit for the job? Europe’s Role in a new World Order”.
Moderation: Christoph Lanz, Head of Board Thomson Media
The discussion in Roundtable II took place on two different levels: On the first level, there was an inside-out perspective on Europe on the question of the need for institutional reforms in Europe, e.g. the transition from consensus to majority decision-making. The question of whether the enlargement of the European Union is feasible and even a good idea at this point in time was also hotly debated. On a second level, the participants looked at Europe from the outside.
The result of the discussion was that Europe seems to have reached a point with a double challenge: Europe must consolidate internally and at the same time grow externally. It has to grow into its global responsibility as an economic heavyweight, but still be a military lightweight.
When asked whether we as Europeans can aspire to and achieve strategic autonomy, some of the participants tended to answer that we may not have much choice.
Although some participants took this position that Europe does not need US support and capabilities, the general consensus was that Europe will never get to the point of being strategically autonomous.
But the idea is there, and people are thinking about it and working to develop a grand strategy for Europe as the world changes around us and the United States turns inwards. Turning away from Europe and turning towards Asia, towards China, which is staking its share, its claim, and Russia, which is pursuing its own political interests. That is why Europe should begin to strive for strategic autonomy. But – everyone agreed – not against the USA, that would be foolish and would also make no sense geographically, because there can be no second West.
It was stressed that the decision-making process within the European Union had to be reformed. Another important point was that the European Union is allowing China to divide Europe. Therefore, he said, the EU needs to look at whether it is just made up of a few countries that can be easily divided or whether they can find a common position, especially in foreign policy. Russia is, economically speaking, only a small player in the big game. Europe, on the other hand, is economically strong, but still allows itself to be put under pressure by Russia.
Therefore, Europe really needs to be united in order to be able to cope with these big challenges.
Another point of discussion revolved around the question of whether or not European values are outdated. The clear answer was: no, they are not. Europe should definitely hold on to these values and continue to propagate them.
Strategic Roundtable III “‘A matter of facts trust’: Science and Journalism in perilous times”.
Moderation: Alexandra Borchardt, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Input: Wolfgang Blau,Visiting Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University
Roundtable III focused on the relationship between science and the media and the daily work in editorial offices.
Wolfgang Blau, who has studied the coverage of climate change in recent years, defined climate change in his impulse as one of the most important topics for journalism, especially for young audiences. This means that editorial offices have to develop climate competence enormously. We would always talk about digital literacy and media literacy, but not enough about climate literacy, neither in the population, nor in the arts, nor in editorial offices. This urgently needs to change.
Journalists, editorial offices and media houses need common standards to communicate the basics of climate science and climate change to the public and to discuss them with them.
It is of course very difficult for small local newsrooms to meet these requirements because they do not have sufficient capacity, both technically and in terms of staff. Throughout Europe, it became clear in the discussion, the mostly young audience is very interested in climate change, but it is enormously difficult to find staff with the necessary skills.
Participants also stressed the need for closer cooperation between scientists and journalists to ensure that journalists understand the scientific facts and are able to communicate them to the public.
However, it also became clear that science does not always mean certainty, but is also based on doubt, and that it is a great challenge and task for the media and journalists to convey this.
Another problem that was discussed is that journalists who report on climate change are very often lumped together with green or left-wing politics. It is a big problem that reporting on climate change is in the middle of a culture war. Therefore, ways need to be found to communicate simple metrics to people, as was done with the current pandemic.
Participants expressed the experience that the pandemic had increased trust in journalism. This, they said, shows that the debate about declining trust in journalism as a whole is not true. As the Digital News Report showed this year, trust in media has increased by six percentage points globally across all markets, while it is very low in social media. Traditional media, the big brands with their newsrooms, struggle every day to convince people to communicate with their audiences. They have a lot of trust and have to capitalise on it; only a radical minority has no trust in the media and journalists have to make the most of it.
There was also discussion about what the journalism of the future might look like. The prevailing conviction was that constructive journalism would play a big role in it. That stories have to be shaped in such a way that they are constructive and offer solutions, because if people only see catastrophes and dramas in the news, they turn away, that is a psychological effect. The unanimous opinion is that people want to be shown constructive ways out of the eternal catastrophes, and that this is one of the great tasks and challenges for journalism.
SPECIAL TALK “THE TOTALITARIAN TEMPTATION”
After a short break, the participants present gathered in the palace theatre of the Neues Palais. Prof. Dr Andreas Reckwitz, Professor of General Sociology and Sociology of Culture, Humboldt University Berlin, gave deep insights into the topic of resilience in modern times in his opening speech “Resilience in late Modernity“. “Resilience has appeared as a key term of public debate. It could indeed become a crucial concept for the post-Covid 19 era, or even for 21st century politics as a whole. For, it appears to literally impose itself on us, if we try to derive a reasonable lesson from the handling of the pandemic: Societies must become more resilient. Individuals should work on their mind and psychic structure to gain resilience, and the state should provide a framework for society to do so. Resilience is generally about the ability to be prepared for undesirable, even shocking events.” Read the whole speech here.
Afterwards, Saad Mohseni (Afghan-Australian media entrepreneur and co-founder and chairman of the MOBY Group), Dr Claudia Major (Head of the International Security Department at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs SWP), and Dr Can Dündar (top Turkish journalist and editor-in-chief of Özgurüz) discussed the state and future of democracy at the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium. Moderated by the international TV presenter Ali Aslan, the panel analysed in particular the rise of totalitarian regimes and the mistakes Western governments have made in dealing with Afghanistan, Turkey, the Middle East and also Africa and China in their attempts to export democracy.
In 2002, Saad Mohseni established the Moby Group, the first private, independent media company in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where women also work as journalists and presenters. He thus helped shape the country’s development into a democracy for almost 20 years and has now experienced the erosion of progress by the Taliban at first hand. He was in Afghanistan for the last time at the end of July.
Mohseni, whose station and its 400 staff are still active in Afghanistan, stressed that the last few years had not been in vain in view of the current situation. Unlike in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, this time around, women demonstrated in the streets for their rights, civil society actors initiated campaigns for girls’ education and the Taliban had to have discussions with women and civil society on television. This was unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago and of course has something to do with the education system, which has also given girls access to schools and universities.
But an erosion of democracy has not only been seen in Afghanistan, but also in educated Western societies around the world, including in Europe, where illiberal democracies have taken hold, not least in Poland and Hungary.
Claudia Major recalls Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 book “The End of History” argued that after the collapse of the USSR, the principles of liberalism in the form of democracy and a market economy would soon prevail everywhere. The crucial question, according to Major, is why democracy has lost this effect, the other is how we get it back. The temptation to roll back democracy in favour of totalitarian regimes is not taking place loudly and visibly with coups and revolutions, but in a quiet, subtle way, an undermining of democratic institutions, rights and freedoms, both in Afghanistan and Turkey and in European countries. There have been reductions in media freedom, an erosion of media and education systems and restrictions on freedoms. “You don’t actually see things changing, but at some point you stand there and say: Wait a minute, that’s not a democratic state anymore, because freedom of education, freedom of expression, etc. have suddenly disappeared.” You only have to look at the insidious processes in countries like Poland or Hungary.
This includes the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the undermining of arms control treaties, which are indications of the legal democratic order being abandoned, both nationally and internationally.
Can Dündar, who has been living in exile in Berlin since 2016 and runs his independent German-Turkish news platform Özgürüz (We are free) from there, pointed out the mistakes that the USA and European countries have made in dealing with the Middle East over the last 40 years. The first mistake the Americans made was to use Islam against communism and to support the Islamists, which led to the founding of Al-Qaida. The second mistake was the attempt to install a moderate Islam instead of radical Islam and to support, for example, the Turkish president Erdogan and other leaders. However, they made no attempt to consider promoting the liberal or secular forces in these countries. And when the refugee crisis came about in 2015, Europe had no choice but to pay Erdogan to stop the flow of refugees into Europe. When it comes to the political interests of Western European countries and the USA, they are prepared to sacrifice democratic principles. This weakens democracy as a whole.
Claudia Major added that after the end of the Cold War, Germany had believed itself to be on the good side of history, having won against the Soviet Union, which showed that the liberal world was winning. This gave rise to the fallacy that if we only cooperate closely enough with other countries that do not have a democratic system, they would thereby become a liberal and economically free country. However, we see today that this didn’t work. The wake-up call was the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Donbass, and the recent alarm call regarding China, Major said. The approach of this foreign policy had clearly proved to be wrong. What led to the reunification of Germany had not worked worldwide, and this realisation was a frustrating lesson and difficult to digest.
Saad Mohseni said that “many values that are so important to us are internationally recognised, universal values like freedom of expression, freedom of speech. These are not just Western freedoms.” The lessons from Afghanistan are that it takes time and that above all you need an educated social class, a civil society in which women’s rights and freedom of speech and expression prevail. At the same time, of course, the supporters of this democratic process should not be the ones promoting corrupt politicians. Can Dündar added that Germany, which was able to become a democratic country through a lot of support and time, should also support democratic forces and countries worldwide. “You can’t just close the door”, he said, totalitarianism and authoritarianism is “like air pollution, it doesn’t stop at borders”.
The central democratic political role of the media was also discussed by the panellists. In Turkey, according to Can Dündar, almost all media institutions are controlled by the government and are purely propaganda machines. Which is why he and his team attempt to reach out to the people in Turkey from afar, which is not exactly easy under the circumstances. Extreme caution is required so far away from the reporters on the ground and from the sources, and of course funding is also a problem.
Social networks also played a major role, according to the discussants. On the one hand, they are helpful and often indispensable when it comes to reaching readers, viewers and target groups. On the other hand, fake news is spread uncontrollably on a massive scale through them; there are opaque algorithms, a lot of sensationalism, excitement, racism, sexism and violence, which leads to further divisions within society.
Nevertheless, access to media plays a central role in democratisation processes – and education. He hopes that one day – perhaps as early as ten years from now – his country will be where Germany is today, he said. Currently, one-third of Afghans have access to smartphones; one day it may be 80% or 90%. This, and access to education, helps people to differentiate and therefore children “need to acquire the ability to read and listen to different views and opinions at school and at home and not be in an echo chamber, a bubble”.
Claudia Major pointed out that after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the aggressive Russian foreign policy in the Baltic countries, journalism in particular should be promoted and journalists should be supported in order to be able to counter false news from Russia. To be able to analyse and better interpret media and develop a stronger resilience to fake news. That is why it is necessary to invest in journalism everywhere, especially where it is difficult to access. And you also have to train the population to recognise good journalism.
Something that is often overlooked in this context, Major continued, is the influence of think tanks and science from outside. For example, some groups attempt to influence the scientific discourse by threatening scientists or trying to determine the discourse in certain subject areas, such as the pandemic or the origin of the pandemic. That is why it is important to defend scientific and academic freedom. “We should know who is funding which chair, which think tank, because freedom of thought is as important as freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”
Regarding the increasing fragmentation and polarisation in society in many countries, Claudia Major shared the impression that “in recent years we have realised that democracy is a critical infrastructure that we need to protect just like our energy systems”. Whether in the media or education, we have to “stand in opposition to our public opinion and research being undermined by other countries, we have to screen, not only in terms of Russian and Chinese influence in the national economy, but also in the media landscape”. I think there is an awareness process.”
Despite the current state of democracy, Can Dündar is optimistic about the future. We have all learned a lot from the pandemic and he had the impression that in many societies social tendencies were starting to get stronger again, be it in the USA or in Germany. It is important that education and media are further strengthened and supported. As far as his home country is concerned, Dündar is confident “that we will soon have an end to this dark period of time”. Because it is also clear to see in Turkey that politics and Islamism cannot live together; religion must be separated from politics. The opposition alliance is becoming more powerful, he said, and his hopes are high that a democratic alliance will win in Turkey’s next elections.
Saad Mohseni pointed out that what happens in Afghanistan will not stay in Afghanistan. The dictatorial regime will force millions of people to leave the country. “Afghanistan is two countries away from Europe: Iran, Turkey and then comes Europe. And if Europeans are really concerned and worried about Afghanistan, they need to be concerned about what is happening in Afghanistan”, he said. He advised sitting down with the Taliban and engaging in the region. Which does not mean recognising the Taliban. But the regime must be dealt with, he said, otherwise there will be hunger, mass cleansing and even greater poverty. “90% of the population lives below the poverty line. There are difficult times ahead for the country, the world must take action.” It was time for Germany to take a leadership role, especially in Afghanistan and Turkey. “Because everything that happens in Afghanistan does not necessarily stay in the country. It will have an impact on Germany, Turkey and other countries.
Democracy, it was unanimously agreed, is fragile, with critical infrastructure that we need to protect just like our energy systems. And it cannot be taken for granted. We have to fight for it.
M100 MEDIA AWARD TO ALEXEI NAWALNY AND FBK
With the presentation of the M100 Media Award to Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his anti-corruption foundation FBK, the international media conference M100 Sanssouci Colloquium came to a glittering and moving conclusion last night at the Palace Theatre in the Neues Palais. Instead of the imprisoned Navalny, his campaign manager and close confidant Leonid Volkov accepted the award, which was presented to him by Potsdam’s Lord Mayor Mike Schubert. The laudation was given by FDP leader Christian Lindner, who has been campaigning for Navalny’s release for months and, in the midst of exciting coalition negotiations, took the time to give the central political speech of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium for the second time since 2018.
In presenting the award to Alexei Navalny, the M100 advisory board, chaired by Potsdam’s Lord Mayor Mike Schubert, is sending a clear signal about the importance of defending European values through an independent opposition and civil society, fair judicial procedures and the right to exercise basic human rights. The award also serves as a symbol for the almost 400 political prisoners in Russia, as well as murdered politicians and journalists and for the fight against increasing autocracy in Europe.
We thank our supporters, sponsors and partners for their financial and content-related support: City of Potsdam, Medienboard BerlinBrandenburg, Federal Foreign Office, National Endowment for Democracy, Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Agentur Medienlabor, BFB, AFP, Human Rights Watch, Institute for Media and Communication Policy (IfM), Reporters without Borders, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation, and the VDZ.